September 03, 2009
Figs ain't what they used to be (and they never were)
Posted by Usha Rodrigues

My friend and colleague Paul Heald has just posted a typically iconoclastic piece that's generating some buzz.  Ever heard a birkenstock-wearing, tofu-eater deplore the tyranny of modern agribusiness? Has the replacement of myriad heirloom varieties with supermarket pablum got you down?  Apparently the science behind foodie nostalgia hinges on one study that compared seed catalogs from 1903 to ones from 1983 and found a stunning 97% loss rate in number of available varieties. 

According to Paul, the numbers are wrong.  Quoting from the abstract:

Our study of 2004 commercial seed catalogs shows twice as many 1903 crop varieties surviving as previously reported in the iconic 1983 study on vegetable crop diversity. More important, we find that growers in 2004 had as many varieties to choose from (approximately 7100 varieties among 48 crops) as did their predecessors in 1903 (approximately 7262 varieties among the same 48 crops). In addition, we cast doubt on the number of distinct varieties actually available in 1903 by examining historical sources that expose the systematic practice of multiple naming.

Of extra interest to lawyers, it doesn't seem like whether a type of produce could be patented increases the number of available varieties.  Food innovation occurs with or without legal protection.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of locally grown food and heirloom varietals. I belong to a CSA.  Our Saturday morning farmer's market visit is a weekend ritual.  And it's a wrench for me to pass up a roadside produce stand, no matter how sketchy.  Paul's research just suggests that the cornucopia of fruits and veggies available to us now is varied as it ever was.  Something to chew on.

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